It Still Moves
by My Morning Jacket
(ATO Records, September 2003)

A wise man once asked: “Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” Why indeed. There seems to be no end to armed conflict, no ultimate resolution and lasting peace, and not a day goes by without an opportunity for experiencing some kind of outrage, sadness, disappointment, or humiliation. There’s hardly a corner of the world left unpaved by the thoroughfares of the information superhighway. They say the world is more connected now than it used to be. In our digital age, all the peoples of the world can stare into their screens and commune in listlessness and ennui. We live in a whirlpool of darkness centripetally circling nothingness and nobody gets more than a handful of decades before life is extinguished and the body literally rots until the human form is entirely dissolved by the forces of nature.

The time is short. Therefore I find it incredibly important to take every occasion possible to refrain from giving any undue attention to all the things in the world that conjure feelings of revulsion and exasperation in the heart and reins. Surely you, dear reader, know the value in retreating from constant struggle with the stresses brought on by work and relationships (or the lack thereof), in order that you might participate in something both constructive and enjoyable, like firing up the old charcoal grill and making some burgers and brats for your friends, if you are fortunate enough to have any. And It Still Moves, the third full-length album by southern/indie rock outfit My Morning Jacket (henceforth referred to as MMJ) is among the best of musical accompaniments for such leisurely and wholesome activity.

I discovered the album when I was about 16 years old. I played electric guitar and bass in a makeshift band called a “worship team” that played religious songs for the Pentecostal youth group I attended. An Arkansan guitar dad who helped out with the youth group introduced me to MMJ. He said they looked like a metal band during live performances, but their music rocked in a different way. After perusing some online videos of the band’s hirsute headbanging, I confirmed his assessment. So I went to the only local record store in town, where a greasy, long-haired GenXer helped me pick out this particular album after some deliberation.

The lead-off track is super comfy. At almost six minutes long, “Magheeta” thematically and stylistically sets the stage for the album. Bright, surfy, reverb-heavy guitars along with vocals literally recorded in an empty Kentucky grain silo release all the tension from your body and mind as frontman and songwriter Jim James’ melodious voice sings:

Sitting here with me and mine
All wrapped up in a bottle of wine
Little we can do, we gonna see it through somehow

With these few opening lines, the listener’s mind is drawn to the enrapturing, ensnaring pleasure to be found in the fruits of the Earth, the impotence of man in the face of his problems and the ability to endure despite those problems.

The third track and my personal favorite, “Golden,” features the gentle pitter-patter of brushed drums underlying James’ acoustic guitar picking. The occasional melancholic twang unique to country lap steel guitar slowly drifts into your ears as James drones in the second verse:

People always told me
That bars are dark and lonely
And talk is often cheap
And filled with air
Sure, sometimes they thrill me
But nothin’ could ever chill me
Like the way they make
The time just disappear

Ain’t that the truth. Doesn’t all the fun in the world just pass the time before our inevitable end? Isn’t it strange that the ecstatic thrills of partying and inebriation only serve to later chill you to the bone that you’re just that many moments closer to total dissolution and being forgotten by everyone forever?

The track concludes with a reference to the only hope mortals have:

On Heaven’s golden shore
We’ll lay our heads.

God willing, once we’ve slipped this mortal coil, we’ll move on to a new state of existence where we aren’t dominated by the fixation with the impossible struggle of trying to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Paradoxically, a fun pastime like grilling enables one to hope for such a state of being while enjoying the good things of the present life. And this is why I must praise grilling, because even though it can be done alone, it is best done in the presence of others. Sharing the means of life, food, and drink with one’s companions is so enjoyable because it is an image and prefiguration of the best-case scenario of the life to come, a feast that never ends.

“Golden” is a song that draws one’s attention not just to the words, as well-written as they are, but to the space between the words, the sounds of music beyond words that have the ability to capture your attention and plunge you into a state of introspection and longing, reminding you of your mortality, the hope of future life and rest beyond this vale of tears. It’s not the most musically dynamic track on the album, but it’s the one I find myself singing again and again more than any of the others.

On “Run Thru,” a very country lead guitar riff and the resounding peal of crash cymbals rock your eardrums as James intones, “Oh shit, run thru the ghetto.” Halfway through the song, a futuristic, laser-beam sounding bass riff takes the forefront as the listener aurally runs through the ghetto—if the ghetto were a series of streets and alleyways in 1980’s L.A. and the listener a sunglass-sporting Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live—at least that’s how it makes me feel. The song ends in a crescendo that somehow combines deep fried Southern rock with the best of sludgy stoner metal hooks. Very headbangable. If you’re driving, it’ll make your accelerator a little lighter and your foot a little heavier. If you’re grilling, it’ll make your coals burn hotter and brighter, so keep an eye on those wieners.

Then there’s “I Will Sing You Songs,” where the line “just don’t make it last any longer than it has to” is sung at the end of each verse, including the chorus. I can’t be entirely sure exactly what James means here, but it’s a sentiment I find very similar to the longing of my heart for the end of the workday, when I can finally punch out and go home to crack open a cold one before the passage of a handful of hours, when I’ll inevitably be woken up for another day of monotonous labor.

“Steam Engine,” the penultimate track, opens like a Subjectivist creed:

So, I do believe none of this is physical
At least not to me.

The songwriting is particularly vague during the final tracks, but they certainly evoke a slightly sad feeling. Does James contradict himself here? At the start of the album, he was all wrapped up in the physical world; now everything has gone and turned incorporeal. But perhaps this isn’t a contradiction. Maybe the ever-unsatisfying nature of this physical world points to something above and beyond itself. Maybe the logic and order and beauty inherent in the world, even in transitory pleasures, are only logical if there is some lasting hope for something greater, something enduring that doesn’t pass away and give way to pain and sadness. After all, how can order, harmony, logic, love and beauty exist in the same world as disorder, ugliness, heartbreak, decay, corruption and death? I see only two possibilities for the resolution of these opposites. The first possibility is that there is an unfading, incorrupt reality that this world directs us toward. The second possibility is that this world is the only reality and it is wholly illusory: absolutely everything for each individual ends at the moment of biological death, love is a cruel joke, and there is literally nothing to point to that won’t eventually vanish like a wisp of smoke. That I’ve taken the time to write this tells you where I stand on this question. The only explicit reference to the Lord on the whole album appears on this song and I really don’t know what it’s supposed to mean, but regrettably, it seems like dismissive mockery. I might be wrong, though.

On the final track, “One in the Same,” borders break down and everything melts into everything else. “[A] joke or a job or a dream” are just “one in the same / And all then are one in the same / And all us are one in the same.” Hmm. I can’t say I entirely agree with this sentiment, but I won’t dwell on it too long. Again, these final two tracks are where I find the main weakness of the album, but I think it’s an honest weakness that has to do with facing the end. The tone of everything has changed. We’ve had a good time listening and now it’s all about to be over. As the record is coming to an end, I suppose it’s only natural that not everything is going to remain fun and feel good all the time. But if you’ve enjoyed the album during a grilling session, you may as well be drifting off into post-burger drowsiness by this point, and the album’s decelerating pace on the final two tracks is quite appropriate for such a satisfied and somnolent mood.

Just like beer and burgers shared among friends, the album is something that can be enjoyed on any number of occasions. I’ve enjoyed it since I discovered it, a time period spanning almost half of my life. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have, my criticism of the vague writing at the end notwithstanding. Ambiguous songwriting is a feature of the age we live in, so I can’t really fault Mr. James for it. Where his lyricism is intelligible, it draws the mind to ponder the meaning of things, physicality, mortality, and the vanity of all ephemeral pleasures in this beautiful and corrupt world. There’s enough in this life to drive you mad and sometimes it seems as if there isn’t any salvation to be found from the chaotic procession towards our final farewell. But as 20th century Russian artist-turned-monastic elder Sophrony Sakharov once famously quipped, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes you need to enjoy a little music, and sometimes you just wanna grill.

Click here to buy It Still Moves.